Q&A with Professor Trevor Burnard

Our Q&A series with senior Australian historians is back with this piece from Professor Trevor Burnard. Trevor talks about the joys and frustrations of academic history and explains how his research is inspired by a desire to explore the ways power operated in the past. He also has some interesting insights into what he terms Early Career Researchers’ “institutionalized privileged insecurity” and reminds ECRs to take advantage of the boom that history is experiencing in public, if not in the academy. And if you want to read more from Trevor, check out his blog!

1. trevor-faceTrevor Burnard is a Professor of American History and Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, where he has been a staff member since February 2011. In addition to many articles, book chapters and edited books on the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, Trevor has written two monographs: one on Maryland, called Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite 1690-1776 (New York and London: Routledge, 2002) and one on a Jamaican overseer and slave owner who lived between 1721 and 1786 entitled Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). He has published a study of plantation societies in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century British North America and the West Indies in the American Beginnings Series called Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). In June 2016, he published a co-authored comparative study of colonialism and slavery (with John Garrigus of University of Texas at Arlington) called The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and educated in Invercargill and then at the University of Otago. I was fortunate to be at Otago in the early 1980s, when funding for higher education was ample and the old-fashioned History honours program was still very much flourishing. My history teachers at Otago were spectacular and made me want to do what they did. So I dropped doing Law, which I enjoyed doing but which was less my thing than History, and was lucky enough to get accepted at Johns Hopkins to work under Jack Greene, one of the legends of American history teaching and research. I am never quite sure why he accepted me there. He told me my application letter (upon which I spent next to no time in writing) was really good so he ignored that I had not taken the tests you were meant to have taken to get to American graduate schools. I was very green about how to go to graduate school – I did not come from an academic family and advisors at Otago at the time thought that the only place to do graduate study was in Britain. But I knew that a New Zealand historian taught at Hopkins and that persuaded me that there might be room for another New Zealand historian at that university. That historian, of course, was John Pocock, in my opinion the most brilliant historian to come from this part of the world, and still alive and writing in his mid-90s.

I spent a year as a fellow at what is now the McNeill Center at the University of Pennsylvania and then had a choice to go to Cambridge as a Mellon Fellow or to go to the University of the West Indies at Mona, then headed by Barry Higman, a truly wonderful historian who I think is the best of a stellar generation of historians who were born in Australia in the 1940s. I went to Jamaica where I taught from 1987 to 1989, and where I did the archival work on early Jamaica that has sustained me for my entire career to date. Until I was in my late 30s, I seemed to do everything possible to avoid going to Britain. But after 10 great years at the University of Canterbury in the 1990s, when it had as good a history department as any place in Australia and New Zealand, I went on a whim to teach in Britain and stayed there until coming to Melbourne in 2011. My 10 years in Britain made me an extreme Anglophile in ways only someone not born in Britain can be.

2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?

I loved it from when I was a child. The highlight of my early education was writing an essay on the origins of the French Revolution when I was about 12 at Green Island School in Dunedin, which was, if I recall, all about revolutionary ideas being like torrents in a rushing river. My teacher thought it exceptional. I never had the gumption to tell him the essay was mostly cribbed. I have never wavered in my love of history – I enjoy every period, every approach and every discussion with an historical content. For pleasure, I read books on either medieval history or twentieth century European history and the films and television I like are always those with an historical theme.

3. Why did you become an academic historian?

At school, I thought I would become a lawyer, because that is what people with my set of interests always did. But I loved history and always knew that if I was good enough to do history professionally then I would do it. In my first weeks at Otago, I took a tutorial in English that I did not like and one with Michael Cullen, late finance minister in New Zealand but also a terrific economic historian. Cullen had me entranced from the moment he started talking about Tudor population crises. I then remember in second year hearing Dot Page, a great local and women’s historian, do a lecture which I know now, but did not know then, was way outside her normal expertise. It was on a new book by Seymour Drescher which had transformed our understanding of the abolition of the slave trade. I was fascinated, wrote my best undergraduate paper on Drescher, and have studied the same set of topics – the social and economic history of seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain, America and the West Indies, as well as slavery and its abolition – ever since. Hedgehog not fox, I suppose – my historical obsessions have been pretty constant since childhood.

4. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?

I want to understand how power operated in the past and have always concentrated on those who wielded power over others, mainly because I believe if we understand what they thought they were doing, we can understand why people without power behaved as they did.

5. How has academic history changed since you began your career?

In some ways not at all. I teach in the same ways now that I did in 1987, when I gave my first lecture in Kingston, Jamaica – lectures, tutorials, seminars, essays and all that. In other ways, it has changed a lot. The major changes are twofold: the range and breadth of history has become much greater. Historians now are expected to have an omnivorous command of huge historical literatures of vast spatial areas. I was once a scholar of a small part of colonial British America. I am now an Atlantic historian, expected to know about four continents over 300 years. The second change is that as we read more history, we keep up less and less with other disciplines, especially in the social sciences. History is markedly less interdisciplinary now than thirty years ago.

6. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?

Every now and then you give a lecture which is really good and you can see that people learn from it. I am not sure I am a good teacher – I have my moments, good and bad – but teaching history is what I think most important. I have been a head of school for 16 years and for many people that often means giving up teaching. I have always taught close to a full load of subjects even when doing a lot of administration. I see myself as a player-manager not a coach and I think one can’t do research or administration unless one also teaches. You don’t teach; you lose touch.

7. Your least favourite thing?

The insularity of many historians from intellectual currents elsewhere in the university frustrates and annoys me. We can be so damn arrogant about our opinions and intellectual influence sometimes. We (including me) could listen more and expound less. And in Australia I wish that what I consider a pernicious academic culture where research is everything and prominent people pride themselves on not being teachers should stop. University teachers should do research – it is key to their job. But everyone should also teach and remind themselves that it is money from teaching that pays almost all our salaries.

8. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

I have mentioned three already – Jack Greene, Barry Higman and John Pocock. I love Ann Salmond’s work on early New Zealand and am jealous of how good Tony Ballantyne is and how brilliant Jamie Belich has always been. I’m a big fan of Linda Colley and Lynn Hunt and believe that Karen Kupperman is fantastic in Atlantic history. My two favourite books in my field are Sugar and Slaves by my mentor at Penn, Richard Dunn, and American Slavery-American Freedom by Edmund Morgan. Everything I write has some element of Morgan and Dunn’s mid 1970s books about it.

9. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?

I’ve had loads of mentors, all of whom have been vital to what little success I have had. Tom Brooking and Eric Olssen at Otago; Jack Greene (the most important of all), John Pocock, Richard Dunn, Lorena Walsh and Lois Green Carr from graduate school; and Barry Higman from Jamaica were all people I learned a great deal from. Many of my mentors have been colleagues and I learn a great deal from them. One great advantage of a peripatetic career is that you get to know a lot of terrific historians. My contemporaries – people like Mike McDonnell of Sydney University, Peter Mancall of USC, Alison Games of Georgetown, Mark Peterson of Yale, Saul Dubow of Cambridge, Mark Knights at Warwick, Bertrand vanRuymbeke of Paris VII; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol of Paris VII  and Cecile Vidal of EHESS – teach me just as much as do people of an older generation. And I have learned a lot from my heads of department, my Deans (Mark Considine at Melbourne is an inspired leader) and even more from friends like Glenn Burgess, who was a colleague at Canterbury and is now very senior at Hull and a brilliant historian and exemplary person, as well as my good friend Greg Hess, an economist and now head of a liberal arts’ college in Indiana. I realise I have been very lucky in my career in having powerful and committed people give me opportunities and chances. I have always been very conscious that this is not true for everyone. My career has largely been one of privilege, based on being the student of an extraordinarily powerful and important advisor from one of the top schools in the world. I am very aware I have had doors open to me because of my training and from my wide range of contacts in various countries that may not have opened to others. One has to work very hard to do well as a historian (but that is true for all jobs worth having) and you have to prove yourself but I am very conscious that I have had advantages in establishing a career that others haven’t. That realisation about contingency and privilege gives you at least a little humility about your true place in the world.

10. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?

I am not sure that people who through luck and good fortune have landed in good places in academe have much useful to say to people with their careers in front of them. How people proceed up the greasy ladder of academic success is very different in 2018 than when I began in 1987. I had no PhD on first appointment and no publications, with none forthcoming for the first three years of having an academic job. On the other hand, I taught 12-14 hours contact time a week on multiple and changing subjects for many years. The experience of ECRs now is so different – massive research demands while often having limited teaching duties. And so many ECRs have what I call institutionalised privileged insecurity – ie recurring fellowships that give you time to write and sometimes money but no certainty of a job coming after a fellowship. Others, less fortunate, must sustain themselves through casual teaching contracts that can be quite brutal in their expectations. The academy is not as much fun as it once was as a workplace and I think we have our policy settings wrong in this country. Still, teaching and researching history is a great privilege. I work very hard – I do some work every day except perhaps Christmas Day and sometimes my birthday and most days I start work before I get to the office and finish late into the night. But it often doesn’t feel like work because it involves things I would do for pleasure – reading books, writing about the Atlantic world and preparing lectures and tutorials. I don’t even mind marking! And I prefer working as an historian to doing anything practical around the house, as I am useless at any household task except cooking. Being a history teacher at university level is one of the best jobs you can have because the subject of History is endlessly fascinating. I can understand why so many ECRs want to be university teachers – it was all I ever wanted to do when I started doing history at graduate level and all I ever have done. And it is frustrating that getting employed as a university historian can seem so hard nowadays. Of course, apart from a brief period in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s getting a university post has always been difficult and the competition intense. It is probably even more intense now, given that lots of people work just as hard as I work and have all sorts of work-life issues that complicate things perhaps even more than was usual in former times. I guess the one bit of gratuitous advice I would give to ECRs is to remember that we are living in boom times for history, at least in society at large if not so much in the university. That boom time should provide all sorts of opportunities to do what we love doing – reading, writing, practising history. So many historians are doing such brilliant history writing, teaching and engagement in 2018 that the profession of history is ultimately in good shape.

To learn more about Trevor’s research check out his blog!


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